Not everything has to be a direct profit center, and in fact many things shouldn’t be. Consider including something for free as yet another differentiator. For some, free will be a secondary differentiator, but for some, it may be the primary. Let’s look at an example everyone can relate to. If you’re a legacy airline, your best bet over the past decade or so has been to consolidate so you can cut labor costs and avoid further bankruptcies. However, that only gets you so far, and eventually you’re going to have to go back to your roots of trying to retain current customers and recruit new ones. There really is no other major difference between the various carriers now other than their routes (somewhat). So now they have to work on the smaller things.

Wi-Fi is widely available on Delta jets, and United flights usually feature DirecTV, yet you pay for both. What if both carriers suddenly eliminated the fees they charged for these services? All of a sudden, each would have their own differentiator. United would now not only have the free DirecTV that JetBlue offers, but they would have a more substantial route network (although still more robotic flight crews). In each case, the 31″ seat pitch that people have been crammed into has suddenly become mitigated by something entertaining.

If you have to inflict pain on your customers, at least offer them a reprieve–another reason to choose you other than your prices. When airlines are competing on price and squeezing their margins as tight as they can, these extras are going to really matter to their customers, and eventually they’ll choose based on that. Right now the airlines have their heads in the sand, repeating the false assertion that all their customers care about are prices. Treat them without respect for long enough, and you’ll eventually lose them.

Most of us aren’t airlines, of course. But we can still learn lessons from them.

Firstly, it pays to really pay attention to your customers’ desires and what what you simply believe them to be.

Secondly, what are you doing in your business to further differentiate yourself? What offering can you include for free, which makes your customers feel good about their choice to give you their hard-earned money? Even better, what can you include that may be something they weren’t expecting? At that point, they’ll go from merely satisfied to in love with you. I know I’d choose love any day. Will your customers?